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AfriGeneas Military Research Forum


Dear AfriGeneas Military Forum:

I first read about Mary Elizabeth Bowser on the CIA's Civil War article "Black Dispatches." Mary Elizabeth and her former owner Elizabeth Van Lew were spies.

The article describes these women:

"After the war began, Elizabeth Van Lew asked Mary to help her in the elaborate spying system she had established in the Confederate capitol. Despite Elizabeth being a staunch abolitionist and loyal to the Union, she was a prominent member of Richmond because of her father's wealth and status. But her views and actions (attending to Union soldiers at Libby Prison with food and medicine, in particular) earned her the enmity of her community. Elizabeth used this to her advantage -- taking on a slightly crazy, muttering, slovenly personae that earned her the nickname "Crazy Bet" -- to cover up her serious efforts to help the Union. In addition to the industrious spying and aiding Union prisoners (while also gleaning information from the captives), Elizabeth also helped escaped prisoners by hiding them in a secret room in her mansion. She wrote her information in cipher code, hid the messages in the soles of servants' shoes or hollowed egg shells, then had the notes relayed to Union officers through several helpers and agents."

Please click on the links below to learn more about their daring:

Mary Elizabeth Bowser:

Elizabeth Van Lew:

Also to access the CIA's fascinating article "The Civil War:Black American Contribution to Union Intelligence." Please click on the link below. It's amazing that the legendary Alan Pinkerton recognized the importance of the intelligence of slaves. He recruited several men including John Scobel.


K Wyer Lane

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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